The Growing Political Power of TikTok

The Growing Political Power of TikTok

As Twitter loses its most active users and with young people favoring short-form video, the role TikTok plays in elections is likely only going to get larger. 


Gen Z voters are an increasingly powerful political demographic, especially for Democrats and progressives. That much was proven in the 2022 midterm elections, where high turnout among young voters helped fend off the anticipated “red wave,” keeping a Democrat-controlled Senate and near-equal split in the Republican-controlled House in the new Congress, which started its term this month. Indeed, the 2022 midterms saw the second-highest turnout among young voters in three decades (just behind 2018): An estimated 27 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 voted in the midterms.

Part of this surge in young voter turnout is due to robust voter engagement efforts from community organizations targeting young and Gen Z voters, especially in battleground states and contested races, both offline and through social media. TikTok, where over 60 percent of users are Gen Z, was crucial to these efforts. October polling from the Pew Research Center showed that people under 30 are the most likely group to get their news from the app.

Because of the short-form video platform’s unique content-sharing algorithm and vertical-swipe interface, TikTok allows tens of millions of users to quickly access political information directly from community organizers, candidates, and journalists. Crucially, though, it’s the platform’s video-first focus that sets the app apart from competitors like Twitter. The app’s layout favors front-camera, low-production-value videos where a creator appears to be talking directly to the user. The result is a social media experience that feels intimate and personable despite the fact that the same videos have been seen by hundreds of thousands of other users. A quick scroll through a user’s algorithmically determined “For You” page could feature videos from the White House, a local Sunrise Movement chapter, and March For Our Lives, mixed in with the latest dance craze or fashion trend.

Recent reports have shown that young people favor the app over traditional search engines, with 40 percent of Gen Z reportedly exploring TikTok or Instagram before trying a standard Google Search. And with the possible death of a key information-sharing platform like Twitter—which in 2016 was the dominant news source for teenagers but is now losing its most active users after Elon Musk’s takeover—the role TikTok plays in elections is likely only going to get larger.

One TikTok feature lets users directly respond to, fact-check, or boost another person’s post through “stitches,” editing the video original together with their own response. Along with in-video comment replies, these elements allow young people a more organic way to comment on political information, relying less on mainstream news sources. Research has shown that information conveyed over video can be more believable than text—and TikTok creators capitalize on that.

Chris Mowrey, who started his own politics-driven TikTok account in October of 2022 and now has 33,000 followers, sees the organic nature of information-sharing on TikTok as a primary reason the app is politically useful. “I think TikTok is good because [it brings up] a lot of the stories that I think should be brought to the table, but that maybe national media companies don’t cover for a variety of reasons.… information about candidates and different smaller stories about local elections and local precincts and elections and stuff like that,” he said. Even some journalists affiliated with legacy media outlets, like Taylor Lorenz at The Washington Post, have become adept at using the platform to reframe traditional news stories to cater to young people’s priorities (and the TikTok algorithm) so they can better reach Gen Z audiences.

Mowrey’s most popular video, with over 850,000 views, celebrates Gen Z’s headline-making turnout during the midterms. “Guess who showed up to save democracy?” Mowrey shouts in a bathroom. “I promise you. Get excited. The next four, eight, 10 years, it’s gonna be a progressive wave because of people like us,” a nod to research showing that millennials and Gen Z, who are more likely to vote for Democrats, will become the largest voting bloc in the electorate over the coming years. The video is characteristic of Mowrey’s style, which he described in an interview as “a lot of energy, yelling, screaming.” He added, “I think it’s important for young people, just being energetic, especially as a young Democrat in a party that can kind of lack energy. That’s something that I really tried to capture.”

Through his account, Mowrey joins other political influencers like abortion rights activist Olivia Julianna, V Spehar of Under the Desk News, and the hundreds of creators connected to the Gen-Z for Change network—a Gen Z–led nonprofit that supports influencers and activists to produce informative content across social media platforms for the sake of promoting political action across a range of issues. These creators have made a name for themselves as go-to sources for political information that is meaningful and relevant for young people on the app.

Mikaelah Curry, a 23-year-old from Illinois, runs the TikTok account @midwest_leftist. She began early in the pandemic when, she said, “like pretty much everyone, TikTok became my entire life.” Now, her account, which she uses to share information about everything from Midwest politics to foreign policy to the 2022 midterm elections, boasts nearly 30,000 followers.

For Curry, TikTok is a platform primarily for getting information about U.S. politics out there to a wider audience of young people. “Every video I make is intentional,” Curry said. “Whether or not the intention is a more coordinated campaign or if it’s just that the information needs to get out, I don’t ever just post a post. I post for a reason.” This is especially important when it comes to reaching people who disagree with her views and would otherwise be difficult to sway: “I’m gonna make a video [and] I’m gonna say my piece because at least someone will see it. Maybe that will convince the one person.”

The most popular videos on Curry’s page top 1 million views, with many featuring her responding in-depth to comments and questions about class and U.S. politics left on her account by users. Curry sees the accessibility of TikTok as its strength. “It’s a very democratic way of finding information,” she said, citing things like busy comment sections as places where folks can go to do their research, or where users can hold disinformation-spreaders accountable. “I think it’s very good for getting information to people in a more equitable fashion, a more timely fashion, when a lot of people don’t have the time to do all that research on their own.”

Despite TikTok being an increasingly relevant source of information for young people who are looking to stay up-to-date with the news, including Mowrey and Curry, many Gen Zers, even those with explicit progressive politics, use the platform differently. Many still see the app primarily as a source of entertainment. Lizzie Suarez, a politically-active artist and self-described “communicator” from Miami, is one example among the more cautious TikTok users. TikTok is not her primary news source, nor her primary vehicle for disseminating information. “I personally tend to stay on the [“For You” page] on TikTok so I haven’t experienced TikTok as conducive to staying up to date with politics or current events as Twitter is,” she said. “I also find TikTok content to be overtly sensationalized and prefer not to take in my news with that kind of tone or lens.”

“A lot of my feed is just trying to learn as much as I can about everything. And I think TikTok is a great place to do that, as long as you take everything with a grain of salt,” Mowrey said of his own relationship to information on the app. Indeed, a recent investigation by misinformation tracker NewsGuard found that nearly 20 percent of videos that appeared on searches for “prominent news topics” contained demonstrable misinformation. Curry agrees with Mowrey on the usefulness of TikTok, and cites creators like Good Morning, Bad News and The Pocket Report as people she turns to for news and information, in addition to the dozens of Google alerts she has set up on her phone that allow her to share politics updates with her followers quickly and accurately.

For progressives living in more conservative or politically isolated areas, TikTok can be both a lifeline and a reminder that voting is still important. “Especially for Democrats, [TikTok] has created this vision of hope for a lot of people living in a state like Florida that appears to be more red, or a state like Georgia that’s very contested,” Mowrey said. “Even I was feeling hopeless to vote because I’m like, I don’t really see a point in this, you know? Who cares?’ But all of a sudden…I post videos and I am flooded with all these amazing comments…. It brought me a lot of hope and passion to want to get out to vote.”

For those over 30, TikTok is much more controversial platform. There have been security concerns raised over the app’s Chinese developers, ByteDance, and Congress passed a spending bill in late December that included a ban on TikTok on government devices. Recently, TikTok was banned at some college campuses on school-owned devices and campus WiFi networks, including Auburn University, University of Oklahoma, and the University of Texas–Austin.

Nonetheless, its impact will likely continue to grow. “On political TikTok, there’s a lot of these great communities and people that you reach and talk to and everyone’s very passionate and kind,” said Mowrey. “And I think at the end of the day, I’d have a hard time saying that that didn’t influence a lot of young people to say, ‘You know what, it’s time for us to stand up and make a difference.’”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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